Judge: New York City can fine restaurant chains that don't post salt warnings

Wednesday, February 24, 2016
(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
AP Photo/Cliff Owen-AP

NEW YORK -- Large chain restaurants and fast-food eateries in the nation's most populous city can be fined up to $600 beginning next week for not posting salt warnings on menu items that contain more than the recommended daily dose of sodium, a judge ruled Wednesday.

"Some people love salty food and are just going to eat those salty foods regardless of whether there's a salt icon next to it," Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower said from the bench. "I believe information is power."

The ruling dismissed a challenge from the National Restaurant Association brought just days after the first-of-its-kind rule was enacted in December. It is but the latest in a series of healthy eating measures pioneered by New York City public health officials that have been challenged in the courts, including an overturned rule limiting the size of sugary drinks and an upheld requirement that chains post calorie counts on menus.

"This is really good news for the health of New Yorkers," said Dr. Mary Bassett, the city's health commissioner. The fines take effect March 1.

Under the rule, restaurant owners must now post distinct triangle icons with salt-shaker images inside on menus next to items that top the recommended daily limit of 2,300 milligrams of sodium, about a teaspoon's worth.

Public health officials have long argued that Americans consume too much salt, and point to cheddar bacon burgers with nearly 4,300 mg and boneless Buffalo chicken salads with more than 3,000 mg as proof.

The warnings will apply to chains with at least 15 outlets nationwide, which health officials estimate account for about one-third of the city's restaurant business. Panera, Applebees and other chains have already started posting salt-warning labels.

Preston Ricardo, who represented the National Restaurant Association, likened the salt-shaker icons to warnings for biohazardous material that would confuse consumers, steer them to restaurants not required to post them and violate the First Amendment rights of restaurant owners forced to post them.

"The irreparable harm is real," he said, arguing that there's controversy among scientists themselves about how much salt is too much. The association planned to appeal the ruling, he said.

The average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium per day and experts say too much salt can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and high blood pressure. The federal government recommends people consume less than 2,300 mg of salt per day.

The salt-warning labels, initiated by current Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, follow a string of public health initiatives championed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, such as an attempt to ban oversized sugary drinks, restrict the use of trans fats in restaurants and prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants.

Supporters heralded those efforts as meaningful attempts to make New Yorkers healthier, but critics derided them for turning the city into a "nanny state" - a message that apparently resonated with the state's highest court when it overturned the limit on supersized sodas in 2014.

"This case is not the sugary drinks case," city lawyer Mark Muschenheimd argued Wednesday. "It is a modest warning about something that can make New Yorkers sick."